Remixing Community: Interview with Jono Bacon

Each Wednesday, we post an interview with someone who is living, exploring, or championing aspects of thrivability – people at the forefront of cultural, organizational, or individual change.

Jono Bacon is a changemaker in a seemingly paradoxical sort of way.  He’s a headbanger and a diplomat.  He plays rhythm guitar, swims in big ideas, and has an infectious “Let’s do it!” attitude.  He sometimes screams into the mic, but speaks and writes persuasively.  As the author of The Art of Community, he shared his experience working for Ubuntu, one of the largest open source online communities.  As a musician, Jono recently launched Severed Fifth, an “open band,” that was recently featured in O’Reilly Radar for its potential to reinvent the music business.   Jono sees a new music industry emerging, and he wants Severed Fifth to serve as an example.  The band is in the final stages of crowdfunding their studio album.  (You can help).  But it’s about more than the music.

Todd Hoskins:  Jono, you’ve worked in the open source software business, as well as the music business for a number of years.  What can the music industry learn from the growth of open source?

Jono Bacon:  Open Source has brought tremendous change to the IT industry. Fundamentally it has closed the gap between content provider and content consumer. In the older world, content consumers have little interaction or opportunity to influence the content provider, and this often caused the relationship to feel strained. Open Source changed that: no longer did a programmer rely on a publisher to get their work seen, and no longer was the consumer unable to express feedback to the programmer.

The same thing has affected the music industry: bands would produce content but the content was fed to listeners via the labels. The world I am advocating, via the example of Severed Fifth, is one in which bands are closer to fans, and fans feel they are an integral part of how the band works.

Todd:  You’ve said the uniqueness of Severed Fifth is your community, not that you openly give away your music for free (which others do also).  Why are people motivated to join your Street Team, be your advocates, and send donations for producing a studio album?  Why is the Severed Fifth model thriving?

Jono:  Community has taught us that when people feel empowered by a mission, by an ethos, and by a goal; they will feel an overwhelming sense of unity in contributing their skills and abilities to that mission, ethos, and goal.  We have seen countless examples of this — be it software freedom with Open Source, public availability of knowledge with Wikipedia, or political resistance with various forms of activism.  When a community feels empowered and has the tools and venue to contribute their efforts, great things happen.

Of course, the mission and ethos needs to be one that people genuinely care about. “Getting Jono weekly bagels”, while interesting to me, would not be interesting to most people. I believe that we have seen Severed Fifth gain momentum because this is a problem that many passionate free culture folks care about, but it is also easy for other people to understand and care about too. My goal is to get as many people as possible to understand the mission and ethos we are empowered by — a more open music industry — and to get people on board the Severed Fifth train to produce a great example of success in the new industry.

The challenge is that culture-changing goals such as these can often sound incredibly ethereal and difficult to understand.  My goal is to produce a concrete example of something everyone can point to that demonstrates that a band who harnesses their work with professionally produced music, free access to content, empowered community, and fair financial contributions decided by the fans, will be successful. This is what I want Severed Fifth to be – so other bands can point at it and say, “If they can do it, so can we.”

Todd:  There is this Creator’s Dilemma . . . people have creative power, but often limited ways to make an income without making sacrifices in integrity.  How do you see this becoming more resolved in the future, for artists as well as engineers?

Jono:  Music isn’t any different than software.  When Open Source first came into focus, people were asking the same questions about that too.  On one hand we are giving the music away for free, but free content lowers the bar for listeners to enjoy it – more people can download it, share it with their friends, put it on YouTube and elsewhere.  Therefore, the fanbase grows naturally as people like to share and recommend great experiences to others – it is what makes us human.  A bigger fanbase means more potential customers.  This is a big part of the experiment, and I have a series of ideas of methods for generating revenue that fit into the wider ethos of Severed Fifth.

Todd:  Even with Radiohead’s successful In Rainbows experiment in 2007, it seems bands are still waiting for labels to court them.  With Rock n’ Roll’s history of breaking rules, rebelling against cultural norms, and exerting independence, why has this taken so long to take shape?

Jono:  I believe part of the challenge is that bands traditionally have not had the tools or skills to get out there and build awareness on the back of the free availability of content.  It is hard enough trying to persuade a label to give the content away for free, but then you need to develop a set of skills to really raise awareness of this. Finally, you have the final complicating factor that record deals are so romantic – they hold so much promise for so many bands.  Unfortunately the reality in these economic times is often in conflict with the fantasy.

For years bands have pushed their music in their local areas, but it is only in the last few years that we have seen people developing skills in the area of global community growth and empowerment.  While I am not suggesting for a second that I am an expert, I have been working on this a lot over the last ten years in Open Source, and I think we are starting to see more and more focus being placed on communities and growth – this is another area in which Open Source has led the curve.

Part of the goal with Severed Fifth is expose many of these techniques and approaches and transition them from Open Source and technology to music. Down the line I want to write a book explaining how all of this worked in a format that other bands and artists can harness. focused on musicians and creative types. We have already seen the impact of digital sharing on the music industry, and I think we will next see the impact of sharing this knowledge about building your own fanbase, and this will contribute to the change.

Todd:  We see an aspect of thrivability as self-evolving and self-organizing, requiring an openness to experimentation.  How do the Severed Fifth experiments apply to businesses outside of the music industry?

Jono:  The key point is that software and music are links to other commercial opportunities.  Take Open Source for example – we have huge companies who have successfully built businesses around giving their primary products away for free.  They have instead generated revenue from other areas such as support, training, commercial sales, custom engineering, etc.  It’s happening everywhere, but you have to look for it.

Todd:  On your dream tour, who would be headlining?

Jono:  I would love the exposure of touring with a number of bands, but I’ll say Iron Maiden.  Up the irons!

Todd:  Thanks, Jono.   Good luck with the album and the mission.

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